How Law School Debt Impacts the Legal System

Professor Paul Campos opened his article titled “The Crisis of the American Law School” with an excerpt from a letter that he received from a law graduate in 2011. The author of the letter, who graduated in 2007, explained:

I generally did well in law school — I was one of the students who “got it.” I graduated with honors, honor society, journal etc., and I managed to land an associate position at a large regional firm in the same city. Though I had fully intended to work for a non-profit or a legal services — type organization, my debt load prevented it, and I felt I had to take a job at a firm. I worked for just over a year and was laid off in late 2009. Since losing my job it has been a downward spiral.

Though I am incredibly grateful for what I have, I cannot help but wish for more: I have a J.D. with honors, an LL.M. from the top tax school in the country, and meaningful work experience. Yet, I cannot land a full-time, permanent job. I am lucky to have health insurance, but I have no time off. No sick time. My work situation is flexible (I can come in late/leave early for an appointment, etc.), but I only get paid for the hours I work. I am extremely grateful that it is unlikely I will default on my loans — thus far, I have been able to manage my nearly $250,000 debt with Income-Based Re payment and unemployment forbearance.

The views expressed in the letter are common among law school graduates who have struggled with making a living after graduating from law school. This debt not only places a strain on graduates, but it impacts the legal profession which in turn impacts American society as a whole. This is especially apparent within the area of public law. William Lawrence wrote a law review article titled “The Public Defender Crisis in America: Gideon, the War on Drugs and the Fight for Equality.” In the article, William wrote about the high turnover rate in public law. He described this as the “escalator approach” to law. What he meant by this was that law school graduates enter into the field of public law to get some experience to move on to more lucrative jobs in the private sector. As a result of this, there are few experienced attorneys to train the incoming attorneys. William cited a survey in which 40% of public defenders reported that they were not adequately trained. Lawrence explained that “without an effective internal training mechanism within the defender’s office to increase the legal proficiency of young attorneys, the opportunity for an indigent defendant to receive constitutionally suitable legal representation is significantly hindered. To be successful, this internal training must necessarily be done by older, wiser, more skilled attorneys who have spent a significant portion of their career within the defender’s office and who understand the subtleties, not to mention the fundamentals, of effective public defender representation.” William also noted that only a small percentage of the best graduates from law school are interested in public law. Most of them go into areas of law which are more lucrative.

Sean D. O’Brien explained that low salaries for public defenders in Missouri caused high turnover, low morale, and recruitment difficulties. Some public defenders have even had to work second jobs just to pay their student loans because what they were earning as public defenders was not enough. Between 2001 and 2005, the cumulative turnover rate among public defenders in Missouri was 100%.

The fact is that public defenders are overworked and underpaid. A 2020 report from Vice News included an interview with Daniel Coulter, who quit his job as a public defender. He went to law school to become a public defender, but he left the job after three years to go into private practice. When asked about his decision to quit, Coulter explained that he would have stayed if the workload was less or if he was making more money. In the report, it was mentioned that the particular public defender’s office which Vice highlighted had not been fully staffed since 2016. This meant that for four years, that office was understaffed.

The massive workload and lack of personnel means that public defenders often do not get adequate time to properly prepare for cases. There was an incident in Missouri in which a public defender named John Walsh came to court unprepared to defend Moe Young. Young was facing the death penalty, but Walsh was not prepared for this trial because he had just finished trying to other cases. Young was subsequently found guilty and was executed in 2001. Young did not receive a fair trial because the attorney representing him did not have time to prepare. Young had another trial the very next day after Young’s trial. Keep in mind that this took place in 1984. Caseloads in Missouri would increase significantly in the years after this situation with Walsh.

The shortage of public defenders in America is creating a serious crisis in which cases are delayed and defendants are forced to languish in custody until a public defender can try their cases. As noted earlier, a big part of the reason for this shortage is that public defenders are overworked and underpaid. This problem is made worse by the massive amount of debt which law school students graduate with. The average law student graduates with $160,000 in debt. This debt deters law graduates from taking jobs as public defenders and those who do become public defenders do not stay very long. Matt Perez noted:

In an American Bar Association survey published in 2020, three-quarters of respondents said they graduated from law school with more than $100,000 in debt, and a quarter said they had more than $200,000 in debt. The average debt owed by law students graduating between 2015 and 2016 was $145,000, according to a study by AccessLex Institute.

Public defender offices also find themselves competing with BigLaw firms, which can reach entry-level salaries of $200,000 per year. Some attorneys start out in private practice but end up taking a substantial pay cut to move into public interest work, according to a recent study surveying 4,000 alumni of six California law schools who graduated between 2001 and 2010. However, the majority of those who left law firms ended up in government or at a nonprofit, rather than in a public defender’s office.

While Zeidman said he believes there is a consistent pipeline of law students who want to pursue public defender work straight out of law school, those who do often feel the need to leave to deal with their debts.

The massive amounts of debt that law school student graduate from is not only a challenge for law graduates who struggle with the debt, but it does have real consequences for the entire judicial system. I began this article by mentioning Paul Campos because for many years he has been raising concerns over the structure of legal education in the United States. In 2011, he began a blog titled “Inside the Law School Scam.” Unfortunately, the problem of the cost of legal education and its impact on the legal system has only gotten worse since then.


Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

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Dwayne Wong (Omowale)

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.